“Every Time I Record Myself, It Sounds Terrible.” Part Six – Saving the Day with the DAW

(To read this series from the beginning, start here.)

By now, you understand how to get your sound into a microphone, through a preamp, and converted into digital data.  So who’s going to keep track of all that data, and how will it be managed?

Enter the DAW

Maybe you haven’t heard of a DAW by that name, but you’ll surely understand what it is.  This is your recording device in the recording chain.  A DAW is a Digital Audio Workstation, which is a fancy name for a software application which handles audio in digital format.  You will have heard of many them – Pro Tools, Logic, Cubase, Reaper, Audacity, Reason, GarageBand, Harrison Mixbus, and the list goes on.  If it allows you to record and playback audio, then it is a DAW of some degree.  Some DAW’s are even free!

It is within the DAW that your audio, now converted into digital format, will be turned into computer files that can be saved, played back, and manipulated along with other audio files.  As your sound is captured, amplified, converted and sent into your DAW, the DAW will build a file creating all the audio samples captured for as long as you are recording – a single computer file, usually in WAV or AIF format, which contains all the audio recorded for the duration of your song.

Even more exciting, is that the DAW will then allow you to play back (and listen to) the audio recording while you create an additional audio recording – allowing you to record another performance in time with the first one.  This is called “overdubbing”, and each of the audio recordings is managed in a “track” of the DAW.  These names are a nod to the pre-computer recording technology which recorded audio performances onto separate tracks of audio tape.  While recording to tape was limited to the number of tracks which could fit side-by-side on the width of the tape, computer recording allows as many tracks as your computer’s processing power allows.

Virtually an Instrument

One other great feature of a DAW is that ability to create tracks which imitate instruments.  This allows you to add instruments without actually knowing how to play them, and without needing to use microphones to record them.  You might add an entire band to your recorded audio, using these “virtual” instruments.  Of course, the more you include real instruments in your song, the more authentic your song will sound, and the more unique your arrangement can be.

Keeping it Simple

We’ve entered another topic on which entire books have been written, so to keep this simple, just know that your computer (and by computer I include modern phones and tablets) DAW will take care of saving data files with all the audio samples taken during your recording session.  Again, just as with your converter, you will want to ensure that you are saving audio files with at least a 24-bit depth and at least a 44.1k sample rate.  The greater your bit depth, and the higher your sample rate, the more storage capacity your audio files will consume, and the more those files will tax your computer’s processing when recording and playing back, so I’d recommend sticking with 24-bit and 44.1k unless you know that your computer is capable of handling greater volumes of data.

If you’re new to DAW’s, look for something that will get you up-and-running without a steep learning curve.  Starting out, you won’t need the same DAW that professionals use, and you can upgrade later.  But avoid using a “toy” DAW – ensure that you’re working at a professional bit-depth and sample rate as mentioned above, and that your choice of DAW allows you to share the tracks you have recorded (not just the mix of all tracks together) with others.  As long as you can share the WAV files for each audio track with another person, you’ll be able to work together on a recording project, regardless of yours and the other person’s choice of DAW.

Getting the Most Out of Your DAW

As with everything on computers, save your projects often and make backup copies in case of accidental deletion or a malfunction of your computer.

Make great efforts to choose useful names for your tracks and your projects, so that you can easily find what you’re looking for within your DAW project.

Avoid using cracked or pirated versions of a DAW.  When the day comes (and it will) that you suddenly can’t open your DAW project, or record any more tracks, you’ll be glad to have technical support from your DAW vendor to save you from losing your work.

What If I’m Not Using A Computer?

You might be using a dedicated recording device, not a computer.  There are many choices of great stand-alone recording devices on the market, from manufacturers like Roland/BOSS, Zoom, Yamaha, and others.  These serve the same function as your computer DAW, and even incorporate built-in microphones, mic preamps and converters.

These are excellent tools for recording, because they simplify the process and are usually quite portable (and they won’t distract you with Facebook notifications).  What they lack is the ability to edit and mix your tracks to the same degree as a DAW will allow.  But that’s not a huge limitation, as long as you are recording at 24-bit depth and 44.1k or higher sample rate, and as long as you can export the individual tracks for use inside a DAW.

Summing Up

Hopefully this gets you one step closer to recording your own music.  Don’t hesitate to ask questions here, relating to your specific equipment and your level of understanding.

In the next post, we’ll look at how your tracks will be mixed together into something ready for playback and sharing.

Next Instalment:  Part Seven – Tricks for the Mix

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